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date: 22 August 2017

Film and Horror

Summary and Keywords

The term horror film refers to a wide variety of films generally understood to focus on frightening topics like ghosts, monsters, and murder. Horror films have been consistently popular among filmgoers since the earliest days of cinema in part because the genre has developed so many diverse variations in terms of theme, style, and tone. Popular horror films have employed supernatural elements, alien invaders, homicidal individuals, and wide scale apocalyptic themes. In part because of their variety and endurance, scholars from various disciplines have inquired into their nature and appeal. A substantial body of scholarship has grown up around the horror film. Scholars have inquired into the nature of the horror film, the reasons it might appeal to audiences, the evolution of the genre across time, and the relationship between these frightening films and the broader culture.

Keywords: horror, Gothic, uncanny, cinema, psychoanalysis, culture

Defining Horror

One of the more fraught areas of discussion within horror studies is the problem of self-definition: what makes a film a horror film, and what precludes it from taking on that label? This problem is, of course, one that is common in the discussion of most, if not all, genres and has been foundational to genre studies themselves. One popular model for discussing genre is Rick Altman’s semantic/syntactic model, which was introduced in the 1980s. Under this approach, genre can simultaneously be defined in two complementary ways: (1) by a genre’s common semantic elements—“traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, set, and the like”—and/or (2) by its common syntactic elements—the narrative and thematic concerns that provide “the structures into which [the semantic elements] are arranged” (Altman, 1984, p. 10). Altman’s approach allows for genres to shift and change over time, while also enabling the critic to describe rather than prescribe a genre’s characteristics.

Since Altman’s foundational essay, various critics, including Altman himself, have proposed additions to this theory. Tom Gunning has advocated considering genre from more than just a historical approach in order to take into consideration “both the specificity of film and the practices of the film industry” (Gunning, 1995, p. 50). After all, the film industry uses genre as one more feature by which to sell a film. We see this in particular in trailers, which work to identify and foreground particular generic elements in order to appeal to specific audiences and those audiences’ perceived ideas about genre. Altman revised his approach in the 1990s to a semantic/syntactic/pragmatic model. The pragmatic category allows for “multiple conflicting audiences,” as well as multiple competing interests within the film industry, who “use genres and generic terminology in differing and potentially contradictory ways” (Altman, 1999, p. 208). This broadening of the basic theory helps explain why, for example, the films that horrified audiences in one era are seen as almost laughable to those of a later period.

Beyond general problems with defining genre, though, horror involves a variety of issues that work to make it difficult to pin down. First, there is the sheer breadth of types of horror films. F. W. Murnau’s silent, brooding Gothic film Nosferatu (1922) shares a genre with Alfred Hitchcock’s taut thriller Psycho (1960) and Dario Argento’s bloody and beautiful giallo film Suspira (1977). Both the low-budget, found-footage aesthetic of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Joe Johnston’s big-budget 2010 remake of The Wolfman find a home in horror.

The wealth of subgenres and cycles within the horror genre has produced an overabundance of semantic signifiers for “horror.” Horror films often feature a monster, but that monster can be currently human, formerly human, distinctly different from human, human-like, or something else entirely (like, for example, a car imbued with evil, or a giant ant that has been mutated by radiation). Many Gothic horror films are set within a grand old house that has fallen into ruin, but settings vary wildly outside of that subgenre, from new and chic apartment buildings (Shivers, David Cronenberg, 1975) to grocery stores (The Mist, Frank Darabont, 2007) to caves (The Descent, Neil Marshall, 2005) to space (Alien, Ridley Scott, 1979). Horror films are often shot and set at night and make use of off-screen space to instill terror in viewers, but these rules are just as often broken, as in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). Indeed, horror films, like other genres, innovate by breaking, or stretching, the rules of the genre, pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a horror film in order to surprise and attract audiences.

These difficulties of definition have led some scholars to define the genre not through the elements of the films themselves but through their effect on viewers. Some scholars have used psychoanalysis to discuss horror as serving a key function in terms of the uncanny and the return of the repressed (though this aspect will be discussed more fully in a later section). Viewed via a psychoanalytic model, horror either reinforces social norms by inspiring terror at their violation or undermines those norms by creating sympathy with those who do not conform (like, for example, the creature in most iterations of the Frankenstein story). Outside of psychoanalysis, Noël Carroll has argued that horror is distinctive for its ability to cause audiences to feel both fear and revulsion when confronted with something outside the “natural order”—he calls this feeling “art-horror” (Carroll, 1990, p. 30). He also sets horror apart from other genres because of the fundamentally unknowable elements of its monsters, which are monstrous because they embody both sides of key conceptual boundaries (pp. 35, 31). For example, zombies that cross the conceptual boundary between life and death (thus, the living dead). Through these monsters, Carroll argues, horror films teach audiences how to think and feel about those concepts and boundaries (p. 31).

With the rise of affect theory in the 1990s, more recent scholars, like Julian Hanich, have turned to a phenomenological and emotional approach to horror. Hanich argues that we watch horror films because it allows us not only to experience emotions that are uncommon in everyday life, but also to take pleasure in the connection between our bodies and our emotions, such as when the hair stands up on the back of one’s neck during a particularly tense scene or disturbing revelation (Hanich, 2011, p. 6). Thus, rather than thinking of films as texts, Hanich encourages us to see them as events and to regard the aesthetics of the horror film as key to eliciting particular emotions from us (pp. 12, 22–24).

While audiences have become a key part of defining horror, that turn has necessitated a simultaneous focus on specificity, particularly because of the ways in which the popularity of various subgenres seems to ebb and flow over time, as do differences of opinions and motivations within audiences. As Andrew Tudor has argued, a definition of horror should reject any universalizing impulse to instead concentrate on the particular; this definition would not only understand horror and its appeal as “a product of the interaction between specific textual features and distinct social circumstances” at a particular time, but also account for the diverse ways that audiences actively make use of horror films to produce a wide variety of pleasures (Tudor, 1997, p. 460). While this focus on specificity works against a universal definition of horror, it also counters broad assumptions that position horror as low culture and horror fans as in some way culturally bereft or, in a psychoanalytic framework, “more unreconstructed than others” (Tudor, 1997, p. 445).

Given all of these definitions, horror, then, can be seen as the shifting and multiple discursive category emerging from the intersection of the body of films that have been classified as horror, what is currently being sold as horror, and what audiences identify as horror.

The Appeal of Horror Films

Perhaps one of the reasons horror films have received so much scholarly attention is the counterintuitive nature of their popularity. While many film genres promise the viewer a pleasurable experience, like laughing at a comedy, horror promises the viewer a decidedly unpleasant experience; one based on fear and revulsion. Scholars of the horror film have developed numerous theories seeking to understand why audiences seem drawn to the experience of these unpleasant feelings. Theories about the appeal of horror films can be divided into five broad categories: psychological, anthropological, cognitivist, psychoanalytic, and sociohistorical.

Psychological approaches tend to focus on individual responses and seek to explain the appeal in relation to innate psychological structures. Typically driven by social scientific research methods, these approaches often attend to personality differences among audience members. As Stephen Prince puts it, researchers based in “psychology and communication have been concerned with ‘effects,’ in terms of the biology and cognitive framing of emotional response, and the duration of the response, because these issues are mediated by personality traits” (Prince, 2004, p. 248). Social scientific research has posited numerous factors that seem to impact the way individual viewers engage horror films, including developmental differences (Cantor & Oliver, 1996), gender differences (Berry, Gray, & Donnerstein, 1999), empathy (Tamborini, 1996), arousal (Xie & Moon, 2008) and sensation seeking (Zuckerman, 1996). In their overview of findings, Mary Beth Oliver and Meghan Sanders conclude that horror films are most likely to appeal to a “male, a person who enjoys thrills and adrenalin rushes, who is not particularly empathic or concerned about the welfare of others, and who is somewhat rebellious and aggressive” (Oliver & Sanders, 2004, p. 246).

A second body of literature seeking to explain the appeal of horror films falls broadly within the traditions of anthropological and folklore research. In this perspective, the appeal of horror is embedded within deep social structures and traditions. James Widdowson, for instance, traces the root terms for “bogeyman” back into ancient Hindi and finds in numerous ancient cultures figures who are presented in mythology as frightening and, importantly, figures who are “invented or adapted for the specific function of frightening others” (Widdowson, 1971, p. 105). These bogey figures thus serve both to frighten members of the society and to symbolize certain social barriers or taboos (Warner, 1998). In many ancient cultures, there was a specific time and way in which maturing members were expected to face these fears through formalized rites of passage. Some scholars have traced the appeal of horror films to these rituals. Viewing horror films can serve as a kind of rite of passage for contemporary societies in which traditional rites of passage, through rites of combat or survival, are no longer practiced. Jeffrey Goldstein observes that “violent entertainment appeals primarily to males, and it appeals to them mostly in groups” (Goldstein, 1998, p. 215). Viewing these films allows adolescents, mainly males, to face their fears and demonstrate their mastery of them in what Zillman and Gibson call “a last vestige of ancient rites of passage” (Zillman & Gibson, 1996, p. 25).

A third approach to the appeal of horror films is the cognitivist approach. Cognitivist theories, sometimes referred to as the “analytic-cognitivist tradition,” approach the appeal of horror films in relation to the “paradox of tragedy” (Smuts, 2014). Dating back at least to Aristotle, the paradox of tragedy poses the question of why people would want to watch the suffering of others as a form of entertainment. For Aristotle, a forerunner of the cognitive approach, tragedy serves a cathartic effect and allows the audience to purge itself of emotions such as fear, pity, and sorrow (Aristotle, 2013, p. 81). More contemporary analytic philosophers have posed different answers to the question of the appeal of unpleasant images. John Morreall, for instance, notes that the pleasure of experiencing the thrill of fear is based largely on our knowledge that we are in control of the experience. We can easily stop viewing a scary movie, and in this way the pleasurable fear associated with a horror film differs from “intense fear—terror—[which] is not enjoyable because in such a state we lose control over our attention, our bodies, and our total situation” (Morreall, 1985, p. 97). As noted earlier, Noël Carroll grounds the appeal of “art-horror” in our innate fascination and ability to problem solve. In Carroll’s perspective, the horror narrative “engages its audience by being involved in processes of disclosure, discovery, proof, explanation, hypothesis, and confirmation” (Carroll, 1990, p. 171). Carroll’s account has been widely influential, but it is not without its critics. Susan Feagin, for example, challenges the notion that horror narratives are appealing based solely on their ability to fascinate since there are many narratives that provoke fascination without the corresponding feelings of fear and disgust. Feagin argues, instead, that the appeal of horror is based on the ability of some individuals to “come to enjoy the feeling components of fear and disgust, and to seek them out as ends in themselves, rather than to find them unpleasant” (Feagin, 1992, p. 81). Such individuals will, at times, take pleasure in the very fact that they take pleasure in watching unpleasant things as a sign of bravery or maturation.

A fourth approach to the appeal of horror draws upon psychoanalytic theories. The psychoanalytic tradition has produced an enormous amount of literature related to the study of horror films, and while we will deal with other aspects of psychoanalytic theory in a later section, here it is worth noting the basic ways in which this perspective explains the appeal of horror. In his influential study of the uncanny, Sigmund Freud identified the root of the uncanny feeling within repressed wishes and desires. For example, the fear of a toy coming to life is driven by the repressed childhood desires for inanimate objects to live (Freud, 2003). For many researchers in the psychoanalytic tradition, horror narratives connect with repressed desires related to two fundamental poles of human experience, sex and death. While individual viewers will react differently to specific images and motifs, there is a seemingly universal desire to work through the deep-seated repressions and psychic traumas that are manifested symbolically in the uncanny and horrific. Glenn Gabbard and Krin Gabbard, for instance, find the roots of horror’s appeal primarily in the “audience’s wish to master its infantile anxieties” (Gabbard & Gabbard, 1999, p. 288).

Finally, sociohistorical approaches focus on the relation between particular horror films and their cultural moment. Andrew Tudor captures the gist of this approach when he notes that the focus is on “the appeal of particular features of the genre understood in relation to specified aspects of their socio-historical context” (Tudor, 1997, p. 445). Thus, where the previously considered approaches to horror films often seek overarching and timeless explanations for their appeal and effect, sociohistorical approaches focus more on the relation of individual films to the historical contexts within which they become appealing and impactful. Thought of in this way, horror films appeal to audiences because “elements within the film resonate—connect in some sympathetic manner—to trends within the broader culture” (Phillips, 2005, p. 6). Horror films are often associated with periods of conflict and disruption, and in this way they can be seen as functioning as a kind of cultural barometer around tensions and traumas. Some scholars, like Linnie Blake, find the appeal of horror derives in part from the way they allow “audiences to work through the anxiety engendered by trauma” (Blake, 2008, p. 2).

History of Horror Films

While the term horror film did not enter popular usage until after the 1931 debut of Tod Browning’s Dracula, horrific images, motifs, and narratives were common in film from its earliest days. While some interest in horror narratives on film has been a consistent part of cinema throughout its history, the qualities of these narratives have changed dramatically. In what follows, we sketch out a broad history of horror in film, with particular attention to the way the filmic depictions of horror changed as a result of the complex interplay of cultural tastes, industry practices, and cultural history.


Horrific images and motifs were appearing on motion picture screens as early as 1896, less than a year after the first moving pictures were publicly screened. One of the reasons horrific elements such as monsters, ghosts, witches, and magic entered into projected moving pictures so early was their prominence in popular culture in the years immediately preceding the introduction of moving pictures. Magic lantern shows, the most immediate precursor to projected moving pictures, commonly incorporated ghosts and other magical creatures (Musser, 1994, p. 15). In addition, stage magic, arguably the most popular form of public entertainment in the late 19th century, had a substantial influence on early cinema. As Erik Barnouw contends, early film audiences were so familiar with the tricks and tropes of stage magic that early moving pictures were viewed mainly as a variation on the same practices (Barnouw, 1981, p. 5). The strong relationship between stage magic and early moving pictures extended beyond audience reception and included the way films were made. During this period, as Matthew Solomon contends, “magic and cinema were in fact overlapping sets of practices that renewed, incorporated, and responded to each other historically” (Solomon, 2010, p. 6).

Many of the earliest filmmakers, including those who helped introduce horrific elements into early cinema, had backgrounds in stage magic. Georges Méliès, arguably the most innovative and pioneering early filmmaker, was the owner of the Robert Houdin Theatre in Paris and incorporated his talent for stage magic in a series of early trick films, many of which incorporated horrific elements (Ezra, 2000). One of Méliès’s earliest films was La Manoir du Diable, or The Haunted Castle (1896), which, as James Morgart notes, “establishes precedent for many of the visual motifs that have become synonymous with Gothic horror films ever since, including the visual depictions of witches, ghosts and bats” (Morgart, 2014, p. 377). Méliès produced several films utilizing horror motifs, including: Le Château hanté (1897), Le Cabinet de Méphistophélès (1897), and Le Diable au couvent (1899). Méliès was not the only magician producing horror-themed early films. Others include George Albert Smith, The Haunted Castle (1897), Walter R. Booth, The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901), and J. Stuart Blackton, The Haunted Hotel (1907).

During the early period of cinema, trick films were remarkably popular, and early filmmakers developed various techniques to create seemingly marvelous illusions, including reversing the film strip, splicing frames, time-lapse photography, and double exposures. During this period, which Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions,” films often focused more on the marvel of the illusion than on narrative development, and so a ghost’s appearance and disappearance were more the focus than any Gothic underpinnings for its existence (Gunning, 2004). Audiences eventually tired of these short, effect-driven attractions, and soon filmmakers were developing films that were more focused on narratives. Motifs of horror continued to be prominent, though American films soon began to rely on narratives in which the apparently monstrous was explained away as a trick or mistake. For example, in Kalem’s The Haunted House (1913), a burglar is frightened away by noises he believes are made by a ghost but is actually only a child’s temper tantrum.


Beginning around 1915, longer, multiple-reel films became popular, and accompanying them were extended narratives and filmmaking techniques that more closely resembled contemporary films. While films during this period were not generally identified as horror films, there were many prominent films that featured horror motifs. Indeed, many of the iconic figures of horror appeared in films during this period, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913, 1920, 1926), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1911, 1923). The period also saw several German films that would have substantial influence on the emergence of the horror genre, including Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), Der Golem (1920), and Nosferatu (1922).

American filmmakers also worked with horrific themes in films that were marketed as mysteries. These films, often referred to as “old dark house” films, continued the motif of explaining the monster away as a trick or hoax but escalated the level of shock and surprise. Films like The Ghostbreaker (1922), The Monster (1925), The Bat (1926), and The Cat and the Canary (1927) were notable for their focus on tension and suspense as well as their incorporation of comic relief (Hallenbeck, 2009). Even though these films were often marketed in relation to suspense, thrills, and chills, the term horror film would not emerge until 1931.


With the advent of synchronized sound in the late 1920s and the consolidation of the studio system that would shape Hollywood’s classical period, the conditions were right for the rise of the horror genre as we know it today. Universal Studio’s 1931 Dracula (Tod Browning) is widely, and somewhat erroneously, cited as the first horror film, though it is more accurate to say that the term horror film gained public prominence in relation to the combination of Dracula and the studio’s follow-up film Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931). With the success of these two films, the Golden Age of horror had begun. These first key films were soon followed by The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932), Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932), The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934), and others. Universal Studios was a key player, producing many of the period’s iconic films. While there is some scholarly disagreement, the Golden Age of Hollywood Horror is generally seen as running from 1931 to 1936, in part because the enforcement of the Hays Code (a system of industry self-censorship also known as the Motion Picture Production Code) after 1934 limited what filmmakers could show on screen or even allude to off screen.

One recognizable element of horror, aside from iconic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s creature, that came out of this time period was the sequel. Universal, and other production companies, produced numerous sequels centered on these monsters throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Frankenstein alone spawned Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1936), Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Roy William Neill, 1943), House of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1944), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Charles Barton, 1948). Also of note during this time was the focus on the mad scientist, in films like The Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1933) and, later, the werewolf, in films like The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941).


As World War II ended and the Cold War began, science fiction increasingly bled into horror, and the creature feature took hold of the box office. Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (1951), released by RKO Pictures, pits honest military men against a morally compromised scientist and an aggressive alien creature with plant-like features. The film ends with the iconic lines, “Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies,” which serves to encapsulate the paranoia of the age. While alien threats were common in horror of the time, in films like The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), the threat of creatures potentially awakened or created by nuclear tests and accidents also formed a key concern, showing up in films like Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954) and Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954).

As economic prosperity and leisure spending increased after World War II, studios and distributors also began to focus on marketing gimmicks that could bring audiences into the theater. There was a short-lived 3-D fad in the early 1950s, with theaters providing special eyewear to allow audiences to see films, or parts of films, such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954) in three dimensions. One of the directors of this time famous (or infamous) for his use of gimmicks was William Castle, who used in-film and in-theater gimmicks, such as attaching vibrating motors to theater seats (as for The Tingler [1959]) and creating a specialized viewer that allowed audience members to choose whether they wanted to see the ghosts within a film (13 Ghosts, 1960) (Heffernan, 2004). There was also an impulse to capitalize on the emerging teen audience, and many B-picture studios focused on finding a formula that would attract teens to theaters and then replicating that formula as quickly and cheaply as possible—for example, the American International Pictures (AIP) film I Was a Teenage Werewolf (Gene Fowler Jr., 1957).


Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho holds a special place in the history of the horror film. While the film is now considered Hitchcock’s masterpiece, it was resisted by the studio and extremely shocking to audiences (Rebello, 2010). By the time Psycho premiered, Hitchcock had made more than 40 films, including such popular fare as North by Northwest (1959), To Catch a Thief (1955), and Rear Window (1954). Based on these earlier films, audiences had come to associate Hitchcock with large, Technicolor adventures of suspense. Perhaps because of this association, reactions to Psycho bordered on the hysterical, with even the filmmaker puzzled at the level of shrieking and laughter being elicited in theaters everywhere. In addition to enormous success at the box office, the film also helped usher in the idea that movies would be screened at specific times instead of running on a continuous loop. As a promotional gimmick for the film and to underscore the shocking shower murder, Hitchcock insisted that no one be admitted after the film had begun.

The legacy of Psycho can hardly be overstated. The film not only raised the stakes in regard to shocks and transgressions but also shifted the focus of horror films away from the external threats of monsters or aliens and toward the internal and psychological. The film pushed the envelope of acceptability in dealing with sexual transgressions, including voyeurism and transvestitism, and the graphic violence of the iconic shower murder.

Hitchcock’s film was, of course, not alone in this shift. The year 1960 also saw the premier of Michael Powell’s less popular, though also influential, film Peeping Tom, which shared themes with Psycho, including psychosexual overtones, voyeurism, and shifting points of view. Films dealing with similar themes included: Homicidal (William Castle, 1961), Dementia 13 (Francis Ford Coppola, 1963), and Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965).


By 1968, the last vestiges of governmental and industry censorship were almost entirely gone. The Supreme Court’s decision in 1952 in Burstyn v. Wilson had provided motion pictures with the legal protection afforded by the First Amendment, and by the late 1960s most of the legal restrictions on filmmaking had been overturned, with the exception of obscenity laws usually invoked around pornography. The American industry’s self-censorship had begun unraveling during the same period, and by 1968 the Production Code, which had imposed constraints on American filmmakers since the 1920s, was abandoned in favor of a new film ratings system.

Contributing to this newfound freedom was a major shift in the American filmmaking system. Antitrust rulings in 1948 had chipped away at the ability of major studios to control what was shown on American screens, and the increasing competition from television opened up a marketplace for distributing new, innovative, and increasingly transgressive films. This period also saw a rise in the number of independent movie theaters, which could choose to screen individual films from independent producers, and in the number of independent regional distribution networks (Kolker, 2011). John Carpenter’s iconic film Halloween, for instance, was first screened at only one theater in Kansas City before word of mouth and strong box office receipts led to regional and then national distribution (Egan, 2010). These looser networks of distribution contributed to the rise in transgressive and at times anarchic filmmaking practices. As Brian Albright notes, during this period “regional indies were at the vanguard of horror cinema” (Albright, 2012, p. 2).

Horror filmmakers were quick to capitalize on these new freedoms, and arguably the most influential film of this era was George Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. A low-budget film with limited, regional release, the film would go on to enormous success and provide the blueprint for horror filmmaking into the present age. A simple tale of reanimated corpses rising to feed upon the flesh of the living, Romero’s film highlighted shocking gore, social transgression, and a nihilistic tone. The film featured scenes of the undead feeding upon the entrails of victims, an African American male as the protagonist, and a hopeless ending.

The success of Night of the Living Dead helped to usher in what Phillips has called the Second Golden Age of Horror (Phillips, 2012). The period saw a remarkable number and variety of iconic horror films, including Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), and Sean Cumming’s Friday the 13th (1980). Arguably, the era began to come to a close with the negative critical and popular reaction to John Carpenter’s 1982 film, The Thing. By 1982, American audiences were more drawn to Steven Spielberg’s lovable alien in E.T. than to Carpenter’s murderous shape shifter.


The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 signaled the emergence of a more conservative American culture, with an increasing focus on family values and deregulation of corporations (Wood, 2002). Horror films were affected by these changes in at least two important ways. First, the stalk-and-slash formula in which a masked killer hunts down and murders teens who have committed sexual and moral transgressions dominated the genre. While the basis of the formula had been established during the earlier decade, in films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974), and Halloween, the 1980s saw many of the iconic masked killers transformed into media products. The seminal 1978 Halloween with its masked killer Michael Myers spawned seven Halloween films during this period (although Halloween III [1982] did not use the iconic Michael Myers). Wes Craven’s 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street, which featured demonic dream killer Freddy Krueger, spawned six sequels during the period. Hockey-mask wearing killer Jason, who first appeared in a flash at the end of the 1980s’ Friday the 13th, reappeared in nine Friday the 13th films during these years. Even the demonic toy Chucky, who first appeared in Tom Holland’s 1988 Child’s Play, was featured in three additional sequels before the turn of the century.

Contributing to this push to create franchises were shifts in the industry. In terms of distribution, the rise of home entertainment systems in the early 1980s, especially VHS players, allowed older films to circulate among new audiences and thus stimulate demand for new sequels. Financially, the 1986 Tax Reform Act eliminated the tax credit for investing in films, effectively ending the system of regional financing and investment, and the general tone of deregulation led to consolidation of movie theater chains and distribution networks. This period also saw the increased centralization of film production into a smaller group of large media conglomerates who sought to maximize profits from trademarked characters like Michael, Jason, and Freddy (Rickels, 2015). As an example, in 1993 Ted Turner purchased New Line Cinema, the independent studio responsible for the Nightmare on Elm Street films in a move that would simultaneously produce content for movie theaters and his cable television channels (Holt, 2011, p. 159). Prominent horror franchises helped to fuel the rise of commercial intertextuality, which, as Jonathan Hardy observes, entails the “production and interlinking of texts like blockbuster films or TV series with allied paratexts and products, such as spin-offs, reversionings, promos, online media, books, games and merchandise” (Hardy, 2011, p. 7).


In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the growth of the DVD market and the rise of online DVD rental and streaming services like Netflix synergized with the globalization the film industry was experiencing under multinational corporations. As Michael Bernard notes, “DVDs changed the ways in which viewers encountered and understood horror films. They also changed the types of horror films that studios began producing and distributing” (Bernard, 2014, p. 6). The result was a market that was increasingly filled with, and clamoring for, international horror. Of particular note are the horror films coming out of Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, and France.

Japanese horror films of the late 1990s and early 2000s, often referred to as J-horror, take up certain themes and visual motifs from Japan’s Noh and Kabuki theater traditions, often centering on a vengeful female ghost, or onryō. These films include Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) and its sequels, Ju-on: The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, 2002) and its prequel and sequels, and Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara (also known as Dark Waters, Hideo Nakata, 2002). Several of these films were remade by American studios. Korean horror, or K-horror, shares some tropes with J-horror, particularly in terms of the depiction of women, but it tends toward melodrama. As Alison Peirse and Daniel Martin note, K-horror is often filled with “a sense of agonizing grief at unfair suffering” (Peirse & Martin, 2013, p. 1). Two of the best examples of K-horror both come from director Kim Jee-woon: Janghwa, Hongryeon (also known as A Tale of Two Sisters, Kim Jee-woon, 2003) and Angmareul Boatda (also known as I Saw the Devil, 2010).

The United Kingdom, after producing few horror films during the 1980s and 1990s, saw a prodigious rise in production in the 2000s. This boom was arguably started by Danny Boyle’s critically and financially successful zombie chiller 28 Days Later (2002), which was followed by a string of similarly internationally successful films like Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004), The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005), Eden Lake (James Watkins, 2008), and Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011). Several of these films are notable for their tendency toward extreme violence, a feature shared by contemporary French horror. Dubbed “The New French Extremism,” a cycle of French films in the early 2000s introduced new levels of transgression in terms of gore, sexuality, and violations of bodily integrity. Key examples are Baise-moi (Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, 2000), Dans ma peau (also known as In My Skin, Marina de Van, 2002), and Haute tension (also known as High Tension, Alexandre Aja, 2003).


The strength of the DVD and online streaming markets also opened a space for a resurgence of independent horror filmmaking. Several young directors emerged who pushed the envelope of the horror genre, notably directors like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and James Wan, who became known in some circles as the “splat pack.” These and other directors rose to prominence by working on the fringes of the mainstream studio system and elevating the levels of violence and social transgression. Low-budget horror films not only stepped over cinematic boundaries but also made a consistent impact at the American box office during the second decade of the 2000s. Blumhouse Productions, in particular, found consistent success with low-budget horror films including Paranormal Activity (2009), Sinister (2011), Insidious (2012), and The Purge (2013). In just its first five years of production, Blumhouse had a total production budget of $27 million and produced eight hit films for more than $1 billion in worldwide box office receipts (Barnes, 2013). These and other low-budget horror films were a marked contrast to the kinds of big-budget blockbusters built around major stars and expensive effects that characterized major studio productions (e.g., The Avengers, 2012; Man of Steel, 2013; Transformers: Age of Extinction, 2014; Jurassic World, 2015).

The increasing convergence of screens in the 2000s bled into the horror genre. Not only were horror fans able to take to the web to discuss and form fan communities around favorite films and directors, as well as new and upcoming films, but increasingly, the Internet became a space where content creators could host their horror media. One of the more significant pieces of independent horror new media was the multiplatform, transmedia text Marble Hornets (Troy Wagner and Joseph DeLage, 2009–2014), which consisted of YouTube series of the same name and a frequently updated Twitter feed, @marblehornets, whose writer would interact with fans while in character, encouraging fans to participate in solving the series’ mysteries. Marble Hornets was one of a number of new media horror texts to participate within the Slender Man mythos that arose on the Something Awful ( forums in 2009. These included YouTube shows such as Marble Hornets as well as alternate-reality games (ARGs), digital games, video games, and comics.

This cross pollination of mediums was also visible on the silver screen. The early 2010s saw several films where visual technologies like computer screens and even film itself played a key role in enabling evil, including Chatroom (Hideo Nakata, 2010), Sinister (Scott Derrickson, 2012), and the topical Unfriended (Leo Gabriadze, 2014). More than this, though, following a more general trend within American film in particular, horror films of the 2000s adopted some of the visual techniques of video games (and, in the case of the Resident Evil franchise, the general story world). We can see this, for example, in the way that action sequences are edited together, often focusing tightly on a sole protagonist’s combat using a third-person-style camera, or the way that chase sequences are often filmed from this third-person style, behind and slightly above the protagonist. This relationship goes both ways, however; the 2002 third-person shooter horror game The Thing, developed by Computer Artworks and published by Black Label Games, released on PC, Xbox, and Playstation, functions as a sequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), allowing players to control a military captain sent out to the icy outpost to find out what happened to the former crew.

Contemporary Theoretical Approaches

Horror’s consistent popularity, variety, and provocative nature have spawned a considerable body of scholarly attention. While much of this attention, as noted earlier, has centered on the genre’s definition, appeal, and historical changes, advances continue to be made in the theoretical framing of the horror film. Following are three of the more prominent contemporary areas of attention: work in the feminist psychoanalytic tradition; approaches based on identity categories; and work related to transnational and postcolonial perspectives.

Feminist Psychoanalysis

Like much of the film studies in the 1970s, scholarly work on horror turned toward psychoanalysis via the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to seek answers and establish a new critical framework for interpretation. Robin Wood, in his seminal essay on 1970s American horror, put forward a basic psychoanalytic approach to horror: horror films, he says, enact “the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses” and dramatize its reemergence “as an object of horror,” and happy endings restore that repression (Wood, 2002, p. 28). Thus, monsters represent a specific Other; for example, Wood reads the cat woman in Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) as representative of the oppressed and repressed sexual female (p. 29).

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, psychoanalytic criticism of horror largely took on a feminist angle, again coinciding with the interest in feminism in film studies more generally in the 1980s. Carol Clover proposed that the lowest of genres, horror and pornography, are “‘body’ genres,” the “only two genres specifically devoted to the arousal of bodily sensation” (Clover, 1987, p. 189). (Soon after, Linda Williams expanded on this theorization to include women’s melodramas, or “weepies,” and the idea of body genres is often incorrectly attributed to her [Williams, 1991].) In this and Carol’s later work, the foundational Men, Women, and Chain Saws (1992), she takes her idea of body genres and puts forward a theory of the Final Girl, building on Wood’s work on the repressed, Vera Dika’s (1990) structuralist psychoanalytic work on slashers, and Linda Williams’s (1983) work on the voyeuristic and sadistic male gaze of the camera and its fascination with violence against women. In Clover’s theorization, the last woman left alive in a slasher, the Final Girl, is a victim-hero, a masculine female who triumphs over a feminine male killer (who himself has already murdered both masculine male characters in the film, as well as sexualized feminine females). This formulation allows teen boys, Clover’s presumed primary audience for the slasher, to identify with the ambiguously gendered heroine during a time when they are themselves solidifying, or questioning, their own gender identities. This identification is made possible, as well as more than just an intellectual exercise, because as a body genre, the slasher encourages bodily sympathy with the Final Girl, allowing teen boys to simultaneously revel in the release of the repressed infantile desires represented by the killer and feel the thrill of danger experienced by the Final Girl as the murderer picks off her friends.

Later work by Barbara Creed (1993) introduced the concept of the monstrous-feminine to horror studies. Building on Freudian theories that type females as castrated males, Creed up-ends conventional psychoanalytic ideas by arguing that fear of women, particularly as expressed in horror films, is not a fear of the castrated (that is, the fear of a lack that could have been) but a fear of woman as castrator, a much more active fear. To this end, Creed reads horror film monsters as embodying various facets of the monstrous–feminine, made all the more dangerous when the monsters are potentially sympathetic. Psychoanalytic and feminist approaches to horror largely became integrated into horror studies during the 1990s, and little groundbreaking scholarship has been published in the area again as of yet. Instead, scholars are working to interrogate the continued importance of psychoanalysis in horror studies, as in Steven Jay Schneider’s edited collection, Horror Film and Psychoanalysis (2004), as well as the September 2012 issue of the journal Horror Studies, the introduction to which was titled “Horror after Psychoanalysis.”

Horror and Identity

While contemporary scholarship on the horror film moves in numerous directions, driven largely by trends across media studies and the humanities, some recent trends seem notable. In particular, contemporary scholars have attended increasingly to the ways horror films are viewed in relation to specific, often marginalized, identity positions. This trend continues the work of feminist scholars, many of whom were reviewed earlier, who recognized the way that horror films are meaningful both to the construction of patriarchal notions and to their deconstruction by feminist readings. Similarly, scholars based in queer theory and disability studies have sought to reread the horror film in relation to these identity positions.

In his seminal work on queer theory and the horror film, Harry Benshoff defines queer theory in a broad sense as an attempt to move beyond “all such categories based on the concepts of normative heterosexuality and traditional gender roles to encompass a more inclusive, amorphous, and ambiguous contra-heterosexuality” (Benshoff, 1997, p. 5). In Benshoff’s reading, the horror film’s monster, like the queer spectator, is always already outside the norm and therefore, the “queer viewers are thus more likely than straight ones to experience the monster’s plight in more personal, individualized terms” (13). Other scholars find in horror’s subversive monster a space for the queering of traditional heteronormative values for all spectators. As Rhona Berenstein argues, horror films invite viewers to be disoriented from traditional roles and thus encourage attention to “mobile spectatorial positions, the dissolution of conventional gender traits, the fragility of the heterosexual couple, and the precariousness of patriarchal institutions and values” (1996, p. 59).

Similarly, recent work in relation to disability studies, in particular, has sought to alter the received readings of classic horror films. Angela Smith, in her Hideous Progeny, combines disability studies with a historicist approach to examine the ways that contemporary understandings of viewers of classic, 1930s horror would have seen and reacted to bodies that were “physically or mentally impaired, non-white, non-‘Nordic,’ or poor.” Those viewers would have seen such bodies within the cultural framework of eugenics, the pseudo-science of racial difference, that was popular at the time (2011, p. 3). Smith’s approach allows for a reevaluation of not only common psychoanalytic readings that theorize primarily, and essentially, negative reactions to physical and mental impairment, but also horror’s monsters. Indeed, she argues that while classic horror films “exploit the spectacle of the monstrous body for visceral affect and box office gain,” they also ask viewers to acknowledge and examine their own fascination with the vulnerability of those bodies (p. 241).

Transnational and Postcolonial Perspectives

The growth in access to and interest in horror produced outside the United States in the early 2000s gave rise to new scholarship-focused changes in national cinemas. In terms of American horror, cultural historical approaches, and even, to some extent, psychoanalytic approaches, have long been latently informed by the sort of ideological and social concerns that also find expression in national cinema studies. The impulse to ask what a cinema tells us about the nation that produced it, and to trace the potential influence of traditional cultural forms like theater and literature, has more openly informed scholarship on cinemas outside the United States, from Colette Balmain’s (2008) work on Japanese horror to much of the work done on British horror (Chibnall & Petley, 2002; Pirie, 1973, 2008).

Attention has also been paid to treating regional similarities and differences in horror cinemas, from Europe (Allmer, Huxley, & Brick, 2012) to Asia (Choi & Wada-Marciano, 2009), as well as transnational links between films, directors, and subgenres across nations (Wee, 2014). Global approaches have, for the most part, attempted to not homogenize horror or adopt a mindset that would view non-Western horror cinemas as somehow invaded and overly influenced by Western, or American, horror. For example, editor Glennis Byron’s Globalgothic treats the development of multiple national and regional gothic horror traditions as evidence of the Gothic’s imbrication within the “increasingly integrated global economy” (2013, p. 1). In other words, the confluence of global Gothic traditions is not the result of Americanization or Westernization but of “multidirectional” cultural exchanges (3). This resistance to simplified narratives of cultural imperialism reflects postcolonial criticism’s influence on horror studies. The special issue of the journal Postcolonial Studies on horror curated by Ken Gelder (2000) provides a good primer for the intersection between these areas of study.


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La manoir du diable (George Méliès, 1896; France).Find this resource:

Le Château hanté (George Méliès, 1897; France).Find this resource:

Le Cabinet de Méphistophélès (George Méliès, 1897; France).Find this resource:

Le Diable au couvent (George Méliès, 1899; France).Find this resource:

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920; US).Find this resource:

The Haunted Curiosity Shop (Walter R. Booth, 1901; UK).Find this resource:

The Haunted Hotel (J. Stuart Blackton, 1907; US).Find this resource:

The Haunted House (Edmund Lawrence, 1913; US).Find this resource:

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920; Germany).Find this resource:

Der Golem (Carl Boese & Paul Wegener, 1920; Germany).Find this resource:

Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922; Germany).Find this resource:

The Ghostbreaker (Alfred Green, 1922; US).Find this resource:

The Monster (Roland West, 1925; US).Find this resource:

The Bat (Roland West, 1926; US).Find this resource:

The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927; US).Find this resource:

Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931; US).Find this resource:

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931; US).Find this resource:

White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932; US).Find this resource:

Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932; US).Find this resource:

The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932; US).Find this resource:

The Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1933; US).Find this resource:

The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934; US).Find this resource:

Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935; US).Find this resource:

Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939; US).Find this resource:

The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941; US).Find this resource:

Ghost of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1942; US).Find this resource:

Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942; US).Find this resource:

I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943; US).Find this resource:

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Roy William Neill, 1943; US).Find this resource:

House of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1944; US).Find this resource:

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Charles Barton, 1948; US).Find this resource:

Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby & Howard Hawks, 1951; US).Find this resource:

The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953; US).Find this resource:

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954; US).Find this resource:

Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954; Japan).Find this resource:

Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954; US).Find this resource:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956; US).Find this resource:

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (Gene Fowler Jr., 1957; US).Find this resource:

The Tingler (William Castle, 1959; US).Find this resource:

13 Ghosts (William Castle, 1960; US).Find this resource:

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960; US).Find this resource:

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960; UK).Find this resource:

Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960; UK).Find this resource:

Homicidal (William Castle, 1961; US).Find this resource:

Dementia 13 (Francis Ford Coppola, 1963; US).Find this resource:

The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963; UK).Find this resource:

The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963; US).Find this resource:

Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965; US).Find this resource:

Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968; US).Find this resource:

Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968; US).Find this resource:

The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972; US).Find this resource:

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973; US).Find this resource:

Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973; UK).Find this resource:

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973; UK).Find this resource:

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974; US).Find this resource:

Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974; Canada).Find this resource:

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975; US).Find this resource:

Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975; Canada).Find this resource:

The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976; US).Find this resource:

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976; US).Find this resource:

Suspira (Dario Argento, 1977; Italy).Find this resource:

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978; US).Find this resource:

Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978; US).Find this resource:

The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979; US).Find this resource:

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979; US/UK).Find this resource:

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980; US).Find this resource:

Friday the 13th (Sean Cunningham, 1980; US).Find this resource:

The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982; US).Find this resource:

Poltergeist (Steven Spielberg, 1982; US).Find this resource:

Friday the 13th Part III (Steve Miner, 1982; US).Find this resource:

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984).Find this resource:

Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987; US).Find this resource:

Child's Play (Tom Holland, 1988; US).Find this resource:

Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991; US).Find this resource:

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996; US).Find this resource:

Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997; Austria).Find this resource:

Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998; Japan).Find this resource:

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999; US).Find this resource:

Baise-moi (Virginie Despentes & Coralie Trinh Thi, 2000; France).Find this resource:

28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002; UK).Find this resource:

Dans ma peau (Marina de Van, 2002; France).Find this resource:

Ju-on: The Grudge (Takashi Shimizu, 2002; Japan).Find this resource:

Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara (Hideo Nakata, 2002; Japan).Find this resource:

Haute tension (Alexandre Aja, 2003; France).Find this resource:

Janghwa, Hongryeon (Kim Jee-woon, 2003).Find this resource:

Saw (James Wan, 2004; US).Find this resource:

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004; UK).Find this resource:

The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005; UK).Find this resource:

The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007; US).Find this resource:

Paranormal Activity (2009; US).Find this resource:

Marble Hornets (Troy Wagner & Joseph DeLage, 2009–2014; US).Find this resource:

Chatroom (Hideo Nakata, 2010; US).Find this resource:

Angmareul Boatda (Kim Jee-woon, 2010; Korea).Find this resource:

Sinister (Scott Derrickson, 2011; US).Find this resource:

Insidious (James Wan, 2012; US).Find this resource:

The Purge (James DeMonaco, 2013; US).Find this resource:

Unfriended (Leo Gabriadze, 2014; US).Find this resource: